Ortelio Cardenas stepped away from the fritas sizzling on his grill to call his daughter as U.S. Secret Service agents posted themselves at both front and back entrances to El Mago de las Fritas.
“I don’t know, they say some government dignitary is coming …” he started to tell her. “Oh, my God, it’s the president!”
“The president of what?” she answered.
“Of the United States, niña!” he said.
President Barack Obama showed up unannounced with his security detail when he was in town for a 2010 fundraiser, diverting to stop in at the little shop he had been hearing so much about from Miami politicos and bought six fritas — otherwise known as Cuban hamburgers.
Not until that moment did a star-struck Ortelio Cardenas, who simply goes by the name “mago” (Spanish for magician), realize the impact his daughter, Martha Belkys Cardenas, and her longtime partner, Barry Hennessey, were having on his business of now 31 years.
Their little shop wasn’t just a favorite among locals anymore.
Cardenas opened his shop in 1984 after learning how to make fritas from his brother-in-law, his late wife’s brother who started Miami’s other famous frita shop, El Rey de las Fritas.
It was just a small family shop, Cardenas running it with his late wife Eva, who focused on making the heartier dishes and desserts. But when she left the business eight years ago with a heart condition (which would eventually take her life in 2014), Martha stepped in to help her father, now 77.
“Nobody will have the passion like I do, like my family does,” said Martha, 49. “The place was getting to be like my father, showing its age. He and the restaurant needed a little push.”
She brought her knowledge of finance and customer relations from her day job working for several major corporations. She brought in her life partner, Hennessey, and he began marketing the little shop far and wide.
Soon, the restaurant was being featured on the Food Network and the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Miami chef royalty, both national and local, from Michael Schwartz to Michelle Bernstein, admit to cravings that only El Mago’s fritas can quell.
In December, the restaurant was featured on Food Network’s American Diner Revival, where Ty Pennington (of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition fame) and Chopped judge and chef Amanda Freitag, revamped the store, replacing aging booths and banquets and tying it back to its Cuban roots with classic Cuban tile and tropical colors. They did this without losing the feel that makes the spot a hit with locals, down to Mago’s quotes stenciled on the walls. (“If you like the food, tell everyone you know. If you don’t, tell Mago.”)
“She’s very picky,” he jokes. “She’s always on top of things, to make sure it looks nice … I know she’s going to keep it running — and make it better.”
Still, every day, you can find el Mago either manning the grill or sitting at the end of the long counter right behind the grill, backseat cooking. After all, he is still the only one who knows the secret recipe of spices that go into the all-beef patties.
But that, too, he’s passing on to his daughter, who’s at the restaurant every night to balance the books, wait tables, make the desserts her mother used to and even man the grill, when needed.
“This is my family, my livelihood, my passion,” she said. “It’s a great feeling when people enjoy what you do.”
It’s certainly good enough for the Tastemaker-in-Chief.